Showing posts with label Margulis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Margulis. Show all posts

18 September 2015

The Failure to Communicate Evolution


EVOLUTION IS IN THE NEWS a lot these days. Buzzy scientists, like waspish Richard Dawkins, make stinging attacks on Creationists, who respond in kind: The God Delusion versus The Dawkins Delusion. In the US something like a pitched battle is going on in some places, where creationists want to replace science in schools with a literal reading of the Bible.

When evolution is a self-evident fact, and I think it is, why are so many people unconvinced by it? Building on my work on the psychology of belief I'd like to use problem of communicating evolution, or more precisely the problem of failing to communicate evolution, as a case study.

In my essay Facts and Feelings I set out my take on Antonio Damasio's model of how we process new information. Presented with some new item of information we evaluate the likelihood it is true. As per Justin Barrett's theory of belief, discussed more recently, we make these decisions based on fit with existing non-reflective beliefs. In any situation we will usually have a range of facts (items of information we consider to be true) and we have to judge which information is relevant to the situation, and which information take precedence in determining our course of action. I called this salience. Not everything that makes sense is salient; and not everything that is salient makes sense. 

A few hundred years ago in Europe, everyone knew that God created the world and this seemed to make sense to the vast majority. It was also deeply salient because the existence, omnipotence and omniscience of God were always important factors in understanding any situation and deciding how to act. The Church was the final authority on these matters and had adopted an earth-centric model of the universe. All the "heavenly" bodies, the sun, moon, planets and stars, orbited the earth. And then the situation began to change. Astronomers observed, for instance that the orbits of the planets were very difficult to explain if they orbited the earth and simple it they orbited the sun instead. And the orbits were ellipses rather than perfect circles. They saw that some "stars", visible only with a telescope, orbited not the earth or the sun, but Jupiter (the moons of Jupiter). Old sureties began to break down. Scientific Empiricism started to come into it's own. Knowledge based on closely observing the world began to supplant knowledge gained through abstract or theological speculations. Astronomers, using nothing but simple telescopes and patient observation, changed how we see the world and our place in it. Later with more sophisticated telescopes they introduced more paradigm changes. Now we know that our sun is an average, nondescript star in a fairly ordinary galaxy. One star out of 100 billion stars, in one galaxy out of 100 billion galaxies. Of course some of this knowledge is inferred. But the whole package has been observed so often that there can be no doubt that this is the case. It's as obvious a fact as that Cambridge is a town (population of about 120,000) in the United Kingdom, a country of population ca. 65 million.

A simple view of this change is that this shift in our understanding happened simply because the empirical knowledge was more true than theology. But my model suggests that it must also have been more salient to the people concerned. Why was astronomical knowledge more salient? I'm no great historian, but it seems to me that the Roman Catholic Church was starting to lose authority at around the same time. Martin Luther died in 1546. The key figures of the astronomical revolution were Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543), Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601), Galileo (1564 – 1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630). The concerns that led to the forming of Protestant churches probably helped to provide an environment in which the observations of astronomers would be taken more seriously. The world was changing in others ways as well. Christopher Columbus (1450 or 51 – 1506) and Hernán Cortés (1485 – 1547) were busy expanding the Spanish Empire and enriching Spain immeasurably around this same time, while Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the earth. This was also the time of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo, the beginning of European involvement in slavery, and so on. The Renaissance is in full swing and along with it the rediscovery of ancient Greek Humanism.

Truth is relatively simple considered alongside salience. What makes a truth salient, is tied up with psychology, culture, and politics. I will argue that the problem of evolution is complex, because the truth of it is not self-evident to many, there is massive competition in terms of salience, there has been a failure of empathy in communicating evolution. 


Evolution

Empiricism, science, has progressed in leaps and bounds since the 17th Century and the telescope. One of the great milestones in the progress of knowledge about the world was the publication of the On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1849. Of course this book did not, in point of fact, explain the origin of species, nor did it speak of "evolution", but Darwin subsequently did write about evolution and his name became synonymous with the theory. It was to be almost a century before a plausible theory of the origin of the variation upon which natural selection worked. This came with the discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick, Franklin, Watson & Wilkins, and the subsequent identification of sections of DNA called genes which encode the structures of proteins that a new more complete Darwinism was born which explained both variation and natural selection at the level of genes. 

The theory which combines genetics with Darwinism is sometimes called NeoDarwinism (the term is pejorative). NeoDarwinism is often referred to as The Theory of Evolution, but it really should be A Theory of Evolution. In fact I do not think it is the best explanation for the emergence of new species, nor is it a complete description of heredity and variation. Recent discoveries in epigenetics forced a reconsideration of the NeoDarwininan account of genes. Genes are not passive carriers of information, rather the genome as a whole is actively responding to the environment. For example, the amount of food available in one generation can affect how genes are expressed in a subsequent one for example. Also the genome of our symbiotic microbiome is many orders of magnitude larger than our own and can strongly affect our bodies, to the point where it has been called our "second genome". Study of the interactions between us and our symbionts has been slowed by the dominance of the NeoDarwian view which tends to see everything in isolation. This reduction of heredity to the "selfish gene" was what prompted me to refer to Richard Dawkins' popular explanation of genetics as "Neoliberalism applied to biology". In fact Neoliberalism is libertarian and utilitarian in character and these are both class-based ideologies. (See The Politics of Evolution and Modernist Buddhism).

In my view the best explanation of the origin of species is one with almost as long a pedigree but one which, though having greater explanatory power, is less fashionable. The Theory of Symbiogenesis is closely associated with the late Lynn Margulis whose seminal 1966 paper, under her married name Lynn Sagan, On the Origin of Mitosing Cells (note the implied connection with Darwin in her title) showed that mitochondria were once free living bacteria. However well known this idea is today, it was originally rejected by the mainstream, and Margulis's ideas were marginalised. Margulis saw evolution as "community ecology over time", as a process which included elements of competition and war amongst species or genes, but was primarily driven by elements of cooperation, symbiosis, and combination. I agree with her assessment that Darwinian evolution, with its basis in metaphors of war and later selfishness, appealed to male scientists more than Symbiogenetic evolution which appeared too feminine.

However we describe the mechanism, it seems clear that species evolve from common ancestors and that all life on currently found on earth has a common ancestry, and that the process of life evolving has occurred over thousands of millions of years. No other explanation can fit all the facts. And yet some religieux, particularly fundamentalist Christians, refuse to accept these facts. Some Christians maintain that the Bible is a factual account of the history of the Earth. Why is this belief so tenacious? How can such people refuse to believe in evolution? I think there are a number of reasons, for example I see weaknesses in the theories that leave loopholes; a failure to create appropriate salience; and a failure to establish an empathetic connection.


Loopholes

Theoretically a infinite number of monkeys working over an infinite time span would eventually reproduce Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace, by accident. The time required to produce a novel by random typing is so very long that the probability might as well be zero. But this deeply counter-intuitive idea is central to NeoDarwinism. In this view random mutations are the source of variability, and survival of the fittest weeds out variations which are not viable. It's as though we were to start with the children's book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and introduced random typos and printing errors over a million printings. We don't expect War and Peace to emerge. We expect the text to become less and less comprehensible and eventually to become random gibberish. We expect this, and it is precisely what we observe happening in copying. Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts being copied in Nepal are literally gradually becoming incomprehensible because the scribes cannot (or do not) properly error check. It so happens that the most recent manuscript of the Heart Sutra to be identified was discovered by me in a digitised collection from Nepal. This manuscript is rife with errors, omissions and additions. Over about 280 words in Sanskrit, my edition has 140 footnotes, so that on average every second word is problematic. As it is, the manuscript is only readable if we know what it ought to say. On it's own it is already gibberish, though with enough surviving elements to identify the text it descends from. The second law of thermodynamics (entropy) tells us that all closed systems should become more disordered over time. This is what happens at the level of chromosomes and cells. They gradually lose coherence and become more disordered, so that replication errors give rise to cancers for example. To date replication errors in ageing cells have never been observed given rise to rejuvenation. Errors wreck the process of replication, and mutations are vastly more likely to give rise to errors than viable code. We can call this the replication problem

So how does mutation drive improvements in the genome? The idea is that some small proportion of mutations enable an organism to better fit it's environment. And we do see some adaptive variations. The classic example, from texts when I studied biology, is the white moths that sometimes throw up a black individual. In the 19th century everything gets covered in soot and white moths are obvious and eaten by birds, while the rare black variety survive and become the dominant type. But then in the 20th century there's a big clean up and the situation reverses. The white moths come back because in this case white is the dominant gene. The argument is that the different versions of the gene for colour in the moths are the result of mutation and that environmental factors make one more adaptive than the other. 

In order for a mutation to be passed on the individual carrying it must survive and breed. But the vast majority mutations are deleterious (are cancer causing for example), and to be passed on the mutation must occur in gametes (ova and sperm in animals). Even given vast scales of time involved in evolution, this is all very counter-intuitive. The replication problem is a loophole. Any theory of evolution which allows for random mutation to be the driving force, is just not convincing because it is counter-intuitive. Presented with NeoDarwinism as The Theory of Evolution, plenty of intelligent and right thinking people conclude that it too unlikely to be credible. Lynn Margulis argued that while the NeoDarwinian account of evolution might account for variability with species, it did not account for the emergence of new species.

On the other hand, of course, we do see variability in genes. Such variations are apparent in humans for example and have formed the basis of the out of Africa hypothesis - the idea that all modern humans migrated from East Africa ca. 75,000 years ago to colonise every continent is partly based on tracing variations in genes in mitochondria and on the Y chromosome. But these variations are necessarily tiny and are not sufficient to define new species. The gene, or complex of genes, does the same job in all it's variations. Despite quite widely varying physical features, there is presently only one species of humans on the planet, a rather unusual occurrence in the history of hominids. Which brings us to the next loophole, the problem of observing speciation

The scientific literature on the emergence of new species is sparse, and often inconclusive. This is not helped by the fact that we have competing and contradictory definitions of what a species is. Summaries of this literature [1] produce what seems like a relatively small number of candidate cases where speciation seems to have occurred, but many of the examples are not due to the mutation of a gene, but to hybridization and polyploidy (mutation in whole chromosomes by doubling or tripling). Where two populations have diverged to the point of being unable to physically mate or produce viable offspring it is usually from artificial stress placed differentially on two initially identical populations in a laboratory. In the wild, the London Underground Mosquito its thought to be a naturally occurring example. However as Lynn Margulis notes with evident satisfaction (Symbiotic Planet, p.7-8) in an earlier, similar case with Drosophila fruit flies it was shown that what changed was not the organism, but its bacterial symbiont. Indeed from Boxhorn's summary it is not always obvious what has caused the phenotypic change. In most cases of so-called speciation, no gene mutation has been identified, nor has anyone gone back to alter an identified gene in the origin population to artificially produce a new species, though of course we have altered many genes in many different organisms. These would be a minimal requirements for confirming that speciation was due to the mechanisms proposed by NeoDarwinians. Since very few people are interested in symbiosis, changes in, for example, gut bacteria are seldom investigated and cannot yet be ruled out in most of the promising cases. Given the centrality of speciation for the theory of evolution there is surprisingly little research aimed at identifying and replicating the mechanisms of speciation.

Worse, the sources for these 'facts' are not freely available, and the vast majority are not qualified to assess how true they are since they are couched in jargon it takes years to learn. Science journalism further muddies the water because it frequently opts for sensationalism over solid results. Journalistic standards are very much lower than those of scientific publications. And here the specific problem is that journalists repeatedly report variation as though it is speciation. And it is not. Such easily refutable speculations help to undermine the case for evolution, help to make it seem less plausible to those who have a vested interest in a religious view. The lack of widely cited and well replicated cases of speciation is a major failing of evolutionary science.

Another loophole left by NeoDarwinism we can call the incremental problem. This is the argument that something like the eye could not have evolved one step at a time because it is far to complex. This is partly a failure of imagination. We cannot imagine the steps required to go from a single light-sensitive cell to a complex eye with specialist organs like a lens, eye muscles, various fluids, specialised nerve cells and so on. The number of potential steps is enormous and the tiny variations which might accumulate are difficult to put together into a coherent picture. Big numbers are just abstract concepts for most people and have no kind of real life analogue: we struggle with geological time periods especially. "A million years" has more or less no meaning to most people. Thus the evolution of complex organs through random (undirected) mutations in genes, is also counter-intuitive. 

So, even though I am educated in the sciences and have studied evolution, and even though I believe evolution to be self-evident, the details of how evolution works are far from clear to me. A good deal of the detail seems counter-intuitive as it is commonly explained. NeoDarwinism in particular seems a less plausible explanation of speciation than Symbiogenesis. A minor point in favour of Buddhism is that it does not conflict with the basic idea of evolution, even though the cosmology and cosmogony that many Buddhists cite is incompatible with a scientific worldview. On the other hand, for a Young Earth Creationist there are all these loopholes, all these weaknesses in the theories of evolution—the replication problem, the observation problem, and the incremental problem—that make it easy for them to shrug off evolution as a theory. And they have a strong emotional attachment to the competing story in the Bible that means that there is competition for what is most salient in the discussion of what life is and how it changes over time.


Salience

Scientists aim for objectivity. This makes sense. It allows us to get insights into reality by triangulating the observations of many observers. Each observer brings an element of subjectivity to the observation, but by combining the observations of many observers over repeated observations we can eliminate a good deal of what is due to subjectivity. If we observe dispassionately it makes the process more efficient. This approach is sustained in communicating science in official publications. The language is impersonal and favours passive constructions e.g. "the animal was observed to eat an apple." Just the facts. But contrary to the old saw, the facts do not speak for themselves. In ordinary life we rate the importance of information by the emotion that it elicits in us. Those of us who are excited by concepts and science are quite rare. Without any sense of how relevant these facts are, we struggle to assess their salience. We're even puzzled as to why scientists are excited by them and want such huge amounts of money to study them. Recently there's a trend towards funding research on the basis of how much revenue it will generate. I see this as a direct symptom of the failure to communicate the salience of research. Left to their own devices politicians fall back on what they do understand.

Now compare the way that fundamentalists communicate their version of events. The message is accompanied by strong emotions, and these are reinforced by communal rituals, and by peer networks. Preachers not only tell us the facts as they see them, but they communicate both verbally and non-verbally that this is most important thing we have ever heard. The message is simple, clear, and repeated often; and it addresses our most fundamental questions about life and death. The religious message could not have more relevance. One's immortal soul is at stake. And for most people an immortal soul is an intuitive concept, unlike evolution.

It is not so hard to see why some people don't feel any real conflict over what to believe and reject the theory of evolution. It is communicated in such a way that it has little or no salience for them. It is not communicated in a way that demonstrates how important it is to know this. If a person does not value this kind of fact up front, they are not going to be converted by an appeal to intellect. But there is also a countervailing force. When we begin to unravel someone's religious faith we undermine their worldview in many ways. Not simply their view on God's role in creation, but their felt sense of the God's presence; the importance of God's commandments in morality; the whole concept of the afterlife and how it will play out for the individual; the rationale and coping strategies for dealing with adversity; the sense of meaning and purpose that helps them deal with a life working in a bullshit job (and all that goes with that); and so on. It's not that they should simply give up believing in God and will be better for it. We have no reason to think that undermining someone's faith would do anything but harm to them. The wholesale conversion of Westerners to atheism is no doubt a big subject for debate, but to my mind it has created generations of nihilists and hedonists, who threaten to undo much of the progress made since the European Enlightenment through short termism and the individual pursuit of pleasure, wealth, and power without any thought for other people. That one of the main responses to this nihilism is a further retreat into Romanticism is not helpful either. I'm pretty sure that Neoliberalism is not better than Christianity as an ideology.

Even for the average atheist its can be hard to see why believing in evolution is important. Believing or not believing has little or no relevance to how we live our lives: how we work, shop or play. It doesn't make us better people. It won't make us live longer or be more prosperous. There's no reason we should care about evolution. The reason any of us know about it at all, is that eggheads insist that we learn it at school. Which brings us to the third problem.


Empathy

One of the characteristics of the current public debate on religion is hostility. Many prominent atheists now embrace the sobriquet militant. Just as in the theory of evolution, the metaphor most often invoked in these discussions is war. What might have been a discussion or a dialogue, or a dance even, is now a battle. Wars are decided by annihilating the enemy or forcing the survivors to capitulate and lose everything. Verbal exchanges are not aimed at creating understanding, or even communicating facts now, they are aimed at taking positions, landing blows, at undermining opposing positions, and at destroying opposition. Stepping into this theatre of war carries with it the threat of attack. This metaphorical war sometimes erupts into literal conflicts, and in the USA not a few court cases. Not surprisingly in situations where both sides are expressing considerable illwill, there is little actual communication.

There is a good sized body of research on what makes for good communication and how to persuade people of your point of view. Indeed the study of rhetoric dates from ancient Greece. None of this research, nor even common sense, suggests insulting your interlocutor or their beliefs as an effective strategy. Despite this, some of those who lead the secular charge in the war on religion, completely ignore all of this valuable research, and resort to insults and accusations. This issue is much more tense in the USA where Christians themselves are more militant (having been mobilised to political awareness by the political right in the late 1970s). But I think scientists have to have the courage of their convictions. Why are the scientists not using science to inform their rhetoric? Could it be that they lack faith in science, or is it that they don't even consider that they might be poor at communicating? Do leading scientific secularists not observe the results of their actions, reflect form hypotheses and test them? They do not seem to as far as I can tell. They preach to the converted and damn the heretics to hell, as it were. 

The strategy of scientists, presenting people with a series of facts with no clear statement of values, leaves people cold. "Coldness" is part of an extended metaphorical dichotomy relating to our inner life: EMOTIONS ARE HOT; INTELLECT IS COOL. Rational arguments are cool, but purely intellectual people are often perceived as cold. Other phrases which draw on this metaphor are: "He is a cold fish", "She gave him the cold shoulder", "She was frigid". A cadaver is cold to the touch. Warmth is the characteristic of life, warm-blooded animals maintain their body temperature above ambient and thus radiate heat and feel warm to touch. (The use of "hot" and "cool" in reference to Jazz is another story, one I'd love to go into sometime, but a digression too far for this essay). In the Capgras Delusion one can recognise loved ones, or in one recent case one's own reflection, in the sense of seeing and identifying all the details, but a brain injury prevents the connection of the visual details with the emotional response that typically goes with familiarity. The person with Capgras cannot understand the disconnection and typically confabulates a story that the loved one has been replaced by a replica.

On the whole human beings are not moved by bare facts. But it's worse than this. On the whole we see people who try to communicate solely in terms of facts extremely negatively; as cold, unemotional, uncaring, and inhuman. The whole point of the Mr Spock character in Star Trek was that his emotions were just below the surface and constantly threatened to burst out. And even if they did not his apparent coldness highlighted his limitations in dealing with humans, and acted as a contrast to the hot-blooded impulsiveness of Captain Kirk. They were a team that only really functioned well together. And on the contrary people who emotionally communicate a clear sense of values can often get away with being completely irrational.

It's interesting that nature documentaries are a clear exception to this cold style of communication of science. TV producers know that the audience are drawn into their work by drama and intrigue. The facts have to be woven into a narrative which creates an emotional resonance. David Attenborough is a master of this. His documentaries draw the audience in by portraying life as a drama with archetypal characters. This enables the audience to identify with the "characters". This was also part of the fascination with Jane Goodall's work on the chimps at Gombe stream. Her approach of using names helped us to come into relationship with the chimps, to glimpse ourselves in their games, loves, and struggles. And perhaps this dramatic style is a hint to those who would communicate about evolution to a wider audience? We want to know, above all, why we should care about evolution. 

I began writing this essay just after reading Richard Dawkins book Unweaving the Rainbow. In the preface he evinces surprise that his book The Selfish Gene convinced people that he was a nihilist who saw no value in life (he describes people as machines). People apparently often ask him how he even gets out of bed in the morning with his bleak outlook on life. Unweaving the Rainbow is his attempt to show that he is anything a nihilist, that he is alive to the wonder and mystery of life and the poetry of the universe, and is fully convinced that we all should be awed and amazed simply to be alive. He tries to tell the reader that curiosity and fascination with life is what gets him out of bed in the morning. I suggest that part of the problem with The Selfish Gene as literature was that it was not consciously concerned with communicating a sense of values, though I would say that it did unconsciously communicate the values of Neoliberalism. I'm ambivalent at best about his writing and opinions, but no doubt Dawkins has values. However, these values are unspoken in much of his intellectual work, precisely because the academic ideal is to emotional content of communication: the myth of the objective, dispassionate point of view. This has real value in the pursuit of science, but not in communicating to ordinary people. Unweaving the Rainbow appears to be trying to address this point, though I suspect given the low profile the book has in his oeuvre it is rather too oblique. Also a good chunk of the book resorts to being rude about the people he seems to most want to convert to his views; religious believers. He just can't seem to help himself. Whatever his merits as a genetic scientist, Richard Dawkins seems not to understand people very well.


Conclusion


We tend to blame religious people for their failure to embrace evolution. On the contrary I say we can lay the failure to communicate evolution squarely at the door of scientists. They have education and access to the resources, but they squander them. There's a movement in the UK to promote the public understanding of science which is doing great work. Choosing good communicators like David Attenborough, Jim Al Khalili, or Alice Roberts to front TV shows and make public appearances is helpful because they humanise the communication. It doesn't hurt that some of them are very attractive as well as intelligent, but the key to their success seems to be their personal enthusiasm for, and ability to speak clearly on, their subject; and their ability to help us understand why what they are talking about matters. 

The success of any communication between two people depends on their being empathy between them at the outset. If what we are trying to communicate is counter-intuitive then we have a difficult job to show why the idea is still plausible. If the people we are trying to communicate have an emotional investment in some other explanation, then we can improve our chances by trying to understand their values and concerns and addressing them. None of this is rocket science. And the people who are doing the communicating are scientists.

As with Buddhism the process and ideals of science are, generally speaking, admirable in the abstract. But the people involved introduce an element of imperfection. The perfect instantiation of science or Buddhism has yet to arise. Tolerance is called for. Both of religious believers and of scientists, even if we do expect more of the latter. 

~~oOo~~

Notes.

1. Speciation:
  • Boxhorn, Joseph. 'Observed Instances of Speciation.' The TalkOrigins Archive
  • Stassen, Chris. Some More Observed Speciation Events.  The TalkOrigins Archive
  • MacNeill, Allen. 'Macroevolution: Examples and Evidence.' The Evolution List. evolutionlist.blogspot.com [draws on Boxhorn; the comments on this blog post are well worth reading as well!]
  • Zimmer, Carl. A New Step In Evolution. The Loom, Science Blogs. Observations of bacteria evolving a new metabolic pathway. 

Margulis, Lynn. (1998) The Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. Basic Books.

29 May 2015

Individuals, Philosophy, and Interconnectedness

Mycorrhizal fungus on roots
In Dan Everett's entertaining and thought-provoking book on his meeting with the Pirahã people of the Amazon (Don't Sleep There Are Snakes), one of the quirks of the culture he describes is the firm belief that no outsider can understand the Pirahã language. There is some objective justification for this, since in 300 years of contact with Europeans no outsider had ever managed to learn to speak Pirahã. Even the name Pirahã is Portuguese. As Everett began to gain proficiency in the language and to communicate with them in it, the view of the Pirahã people did not change. Despite conversing with him in their own language they continued to believe that he could not understand their conversations amongst themselves. This could be amusing, as they openly discussed what they thought of him as though he could not understand. At one point it was terrifying as the whole tribe got blind drunk and the men decided to kill him. The fact that they plotted at the tops of their voices allowed Everett time to hide their weapons and lock himself and his family in their house until everyone sobered up.

I bring this up because as I sat down to write about philosophy this image came back to me of people who believed themselves to be isolated by language, despite the evidence of their ears. The philosopher all too often proceeds as though theirs is the only mind in the world and they ought to be able to figure everything out from an isolated point of view. They do this despite communicating and even arguing over the details with other philosophers. Philosophers can be like the Pirahã.

A number of authors have made me rethink my own approach to philosophy, but in particular it was an article by Mercier & Sperber that made me rethink what philosophers do (See An Argumentative Theory of Reason). They make a case for reason having evolved to help groups make decisions, partly based on the fact that individual humans are in fact quite bad at reasoning since they frequently fall into cognitive bias or logical fallacy. 

We have a real problem in thinking about ourselves. To me it seems as though we, especially in the English speaking world, have been infected by a thought virus that is distorting how we see the world. It begins, of course, with the Greeks, but closer to home a complex of thinkers gave fertile ground for this virus. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and the philosophy of Utilitarianism already see people as isolated. In Herbert Spencer's thought it translated into "survival of the fittest" as a law of nature. In society this translated into a libertarian ethic that justified exploitation of others for the purposes of accumulating wealth and power. Darwin was influenced by Spencer and took up the cry of "survival of the fittest". More modern influences are Ayn Rand (who advocated selfishness) and John Nash (the inventor of Game Theory, who believed all humans are completely self-interested). Richard Dawkins applied this ideology to biology and came up with the "selfish gene". To some extent we can see the obsession with the individual as an outgrowth from Romanticism, but combined with Utilitarianism it tends to dehumanise. 

Feminist intellectuals have been made an important contribution in identifying power structures in society. Power and wealth have more or less always been concentrated in the hands of a small number of men - a structure called Patriarchy. However, Feminists generalise this concentration of power to all men, which is where I disagree with them. In identifying the elite we can begin to identify and critique the ideas put forward to (self) justify their hegemony. Higher education and access to public discourse was largely a preserve of the elite until quite recently. With open access to universities during the brief window of liberalism in the 1960s-1980s people who were not part of the elite were trained to think. The trend is towards increasing elitism once again, suggesting that our window of opportunity is closing. Part of the problem with pre-twentieth century philosophy is that philosophers and other intellectuals were usually members of the class which they defended. The modern elite co-opts middlemen to enact their power through granting tiny amounts of authority over workers or underlings. While we vote for our government, we are unlikely ever to vote for our boss or our priest! 

We are presently living in a time of backlash against liberalisation from the elite; a time of increasing economic inequality that pays lip service to "rights" but in fact seeks to undermine the ability of anyone to challenge the power structure. Our civil rights are constantly being eroded by government for plausible reasons related to terrorism, though we seldom really consider the role of the government in making us the targets of terrorists in the first place. Had our respective governments not been involved in illegal wars and ham-fisted foreign policy of decades past, behaving like a playground bully, would we be in the position of sacrificing freedoms for security?

But really what started me down this road was thinking about how wrong the idea of survival of the fittest is when applied to individuals. Perhaps the most dangerous idea in history, because in the final analysis there is literally no such thing as an individual.


Mythologies 

I've written quite often about metaphors and how they inform how we think. I've been critical about the underlying metaphors of the idea of what we call "spiritual" for example (see Spiritual I: The Life's Breath and Metaphors and Materialism). I've also written about the tree as the fundamental metaphor for evolution and have proposed the braided river system as a better, a far richer metaphor that could lead to more sophisticated thinking about evolution. A real set back for thinking about evolution was the application of Neoliberal ideology to evolution to produce the concept of the "selfish gene".

For a variety of reasons the solitary apex predator has fascinated humanity and over-whelmed other narratives that might be drawn from nature. The glamour of the predator is sublimated and becomes attached to the elite. Hogging resources and conspicuous consumption seem to be justified by equating members of the elite with apex predators. They are at the top of the food chain. Workers are equated with the herd animals that predators feed on. Of course it's not surprise that the same elite has made a sport out of hunting and killing predators, driving many of them close to extinction. And all this is entirely "natural". It's an ugly way of putting it and the spin doctors have of course found more appealing ways of justifying elites, while at the same time using nature documentaries to increase the glamour of predators.

Interestingly the recent trend in wildlife documentaries has been to show the sociality of apex predators, and the degradation of species on the verge of extinction due to human activity. Curiously the current round of BBC documentaries on sharks makes them not feared hunters and ruthless killers like the documentaries of the 20th century did. Now they are perfectly evolved, sleek, efficient and dynamic creatures which at the same time exhibit characteristics which evoke our empathy. Sharks who care for their young for example, or who are social. Metaphorically, or mythically in the sense it is used by Roland Barthes, this is saying that elite are only human, and no one can blame them for having out-evolved other fish in the sea. Indeed one ought to admire their the efficiency with which they go about sating their voracious appetites. So are documentary makers trying to justify the elites (who control what gets on TV) or do we share the goal of emphasising communality, symbiosis, and cooperation? Are they propping up the hegemony or undermining it? I'm not sure. 

The fascination with apex predators is only one way to look at ecology. In my lifetime Lynn Margulis, with considerable resistance from men in her field, managed to establish and popularise the idea that the cells that make up plants and animals (eukaryotes) are in fact the result of a series of symbiotic mergers between varieties of bacteria. At least three species of bacteria were required to get us to where we are. Last to join the party were the mitochondria. These organelles were free living bacteria that developed the neat trick of being able to metabolise oxygen, which up to that point was a metabolic poison. By becoming permanently embedded in the ancestors of all eukaryote cells, mitochondria bequeathed the ability to metabolise oxygen to plants and animals. So each of our cells is actually a little community.

Tree/fungus network
Tree fungus internet. BBC
Tree-fungus networks. SciAm
Another well know example of symbiosis is the commensal relationship of trees and mycorrhizal fungi. This symbiotic relationship is ubiquitous amongst trees. The fungi assist trees by breaking down the soil and making nutrients available, while the trees provide fungi food in the form of sugars. Neither can thrive without the other. Indeed the soil itself would not exist except for the action of fungi. The usual narratives of evolution, with survival of the fittest at their heart, cannot comprehend how important this relationship is. Symbiosis is a constant and vital feature of life on earth.

In the last few weeks we have seen that this relationship is more far reaching that we had imagined. Networks of fungi link trees and allow trees, including trees of different species, to share resources. A dying tree, for example, might send food to other trees via the fungal internet. The diagram on the right shows how two species of tree are connected in a small wood. Such fungi also enable a plant which is being grazed to warn it's neighbours, by sending chemical signals through fungal network, giving them the stimulus to produce more of the poisonous chemicals they use to deter grazing.

Symbiosis is a ubiquitous feature of life. In this view, evolutionary fitness is achieved through forming cooperative communities in which symbiosis is the most significant form of relationship. In these relationships the individual organism actually has blurred boundaries at best. In fact the individual tree is penetrated by fungi that also penetrate other trees and link them together and enable to them to share resources and communicate other information. Tree and fungi have individuals aspects and overlapping aspects. Remove one and the other cannot live, though each has it's own DNA and reproduces independently. 

Animals all have a similar kind of symbiotic relationship with their gut flora. All of use carry around a couple of kilos of micro-organisms in our gut. We have long known that they assist us in breaking down our food. More recently it has become clear that the role these micro-organisms play is far greater. They not only break down food, but help to synthesise essential molecules, and are now implicated in the regulation of our immune system. (Compare: Commensal Bacteria at the Interface of Host Metabolism and the Immune System. Nature.) Indeed we could say that, like trees, animals are surrounded by a film of bacteria and fungi that are our interface with the physical world and that play an active role in our continued survival. We reproduce separately, but cannot live apart. 

A fantastic example of symbiosis in progress occurs in cicadas. These insects have a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria called Hodgkinia, which live inside their cells (endosymbiosis). The long periods cicadas spend underground has had an extraordinary effect on the bacteria. Hodgkinia has evolved into two different species, both of which continue to reside inside the cells of cicadas. But what's more, the different species have suffered degradation of their genome through accumulated mutations and the isolation of life inside a host cell. Collectively the different species of bacteria still perform the same functions in the symbiotic relationship, but individually we see only a minimal functioning genome. Incidentally since all bacteria can successfully exchange nuclear material, they are technically one species with many varieties. Cicadas have other bacterial endosymbionts that are not similarly affected. 

So it seems that all plants and all animals are involved in symbiotic relationships with members of other kingdoms, particularly bacteria and fungi. Symbiosis is not a rare and unusual feature of some organisms that can be treated as a special case of evolution. Symbiosis is the key to understanding life as we know it. And our definitions of individuals skew the reality of what an organism is.

The ubiquity of symbiosis and other forms of cooperation amongst living things could easily have informed the metaphors and myths of nature that we use to understand and guide our lives. Had the founders of modern evolution not been Imperialists and libertarians looking for justification of their way of life, then we might have understood our place in the universe rather differently. Had Christianity been imbued with a sense of the web of life, rather than the Great Chain of Being, then we might have better appreciated our role in the whole. Sadly, we have the view that we do. So new science struggles to make headway. Results that ought to seem normal, to confirm our general hypothesis of how the world works, currently seem like outliers and exceptions. It may be many generations before enough examples build up to change the paradigm. I won't see the change in my lifetime, but there is reason to believe that such a change will come. 


Individuals

It is sometimes argued, following the Whorf-Spair hypothesis, that we see the world as being made up of individuals acting as agents because of the noun/verb structure of our language. I think opinion in the linguistic community has swung away from this view, not least because Whorf was at times inaccurate in his descriptions of the North American languages on which he based his other ideas. We know of course that the subject/object distinction can break down in meditation. Those who experience this speak very highly of it and say that it is what we all ought to be aiming for. Unfortunately the ability (be it talent or dedication) to achieve these kinds of breakthroughs is rare. Most of us are trapped in a world of subjects and objects and have to make the best of it.

When we look closely we see that what appears to be an individual human, is in fact a community with many levels. Each cell is a community of endosymbionts, bound together for billions of years. But other types of newer endosymbionts also occur, with bacteria living inside cells, but as bacteria rather than as organelles. In our bodies dozens of different types of cells, totalling many trillions of cells, form an interlocking community. They work together to maintain optimal conditions for life. Another view of this is that our bodies maintain optimal conditions for taking in low entropy energy and excreting high entropy energy and everything else is incidental. In any case, surrounding this community is a halo of loosely bound symbionts that are intimately involved with our extracting nutrients from the outside world and protecting us from pathogens. 

In the case of animals we always need at least two, one male and one female, for reproduction (though of course some animals are hermaphrodites, and parthenogenesis does occur on rare occasions). Each organism has a use-by date, after which it ceases to be viable. Before that time it endeavours to create offspring that, by a combination of genetic and epigenetic inheritance, will be at least as well adapted to its environment as its parents, if not better. But if this strategy is to work then a large population is required to allow sexual recombination of genes to prevent a genetic bottleneck. Inbreeding causes mutations to build up too quickly and can be fatal to a species. Thus the smallest viable unit of humanity is not the individual, the couple, or even the extended family, but the tribe made up from a number of clans which in turn contain several extended families.

Other kinds of relationships are also essential. For example, in a city where no one grows food, everyone is reliant on distant producers they will almost certainly never meet to supply them with food. Water comes through miles of pipes and sewerage leaves through more miles of pipes. We exist in a web of relationships that sustains us.

The question then becomes, why are we so focussed on individuals? The answers are complex and would take too much time to articulate in full. One answer is that there is a distinct advantage to some individuals when we all think of ourselves as individuals. For most of us there is safety in numbers and individualism means we are less able to defend ourselves (and our wealth). This can be and is exploited by rogue individuals (the elite) who operate not like apex predators, in fact, but like parasites: they benefit at our cost, but both go on living. Through the socially liberal times when wealth sharing was the fashion this was less obvious. But since Neoliberalism took hold at government level, inequality has been rising again. In the last 30 years 90% of people have seen their wealth eroded, while the top 10% have seen substantial increases. All the gains in wealth have been at the top. What we have instead of wealth is more sophisticated entertainment! Or once expensive goods produced under slave-like labour conditions in third world countries that make us feel rich. It's the old trick of bread and circuses again. 

There are good arguments for seeing ourselves primarily as members of a community rather than as individual free agents. At the very least we need to be be far more highly attuned to how we relate to those around us, how we rely on each other to survive. People we rely on for food and water, shelter, for example ought to be important to us. Their well being is our well being in a very real sense. We ought, for example, to see taxes, not as the amount the government takes from us, but as our contribution to the general welfare. It's how we look after teachers, nurses, firemen, police and military who carry out tasks that benefit everyone. If we do not look after them, then our own welfare is put at risk. Unfortunately the elite are wealthy enough to avoid paying small amounts of tax and compensate by spending large amounts on educating their kids, private health care and so on. It's cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. 

Unfortunately the basic myths and metaphors of our modern society tend to blind us to important aspects of nature like symbiosis and highlight incidental aspects that benefit only the few. The reason for this is that for some centuries the myths of the people have been controlled by elites. Before industrialisation folk had their own stories, their own music, their own ways. Each community had their own versions of these, though as Michael Witzel has discovered we also share some myths across most of humanity. Now we all draw from a central well that is controlled by elites. The internet does offer a kind of ersatz alternative: margarine to the butter of a healthy human community. It looks and spreads like butter, but it is what it is: yellow grease.

The underlying myths and metaphors are what make the stories we tell sound plausible. Those of us who want change need to be aware of our own myths and metaphors. We can challenge old, poisonous views like "survival of the fittest" applied to human affairs. We can recast the story. We know that we cannot simply force collectivity onto people. That doesn't work. We also know that certain aspects of collectivity have a downside. Innovation and creativity require eccentrics pursuing their own goals and leaders drawing people along with them. But there must be a happy medium in which we honour our symbiotic, communal nature of life without sacrificing individuality completely. The odds are against us because the media used to communicate ideas and values to the masses are controlled by the elites, mostly run by people who are comfortable wielding their little modicum of authority, and tasked with distracting us from the serious business of life. But if we don't keep trying to shift the ground by choosing different myths, then we abandon humanity to a dystopian future. 


Buddhist Interdependence

It's often assumed that systems thinking (which is a broad label for the kinds of ideas I'm writing about here) is "just like" the Buddhist idea of interdependence. I can see why systems thinking is attractive to Buddhists, but it has hardly anything in common with traditional Buddhist thinking, despite what some modern writers would have us believe. To begin with these is no sign of any interest in interdependence in the early Buddhist texts. Dependent arising is largely focussed on mental states and these are not interconnected, but arise in a strict series, and the conditions of which are precisely stated (either sense object, sense faculty, and sense cognition; or the nidānas or upanisās). It is only once Buddhists begin to apply Dependent Arising as a Theory of Every that we see interdependence emerge as a subject. And even then it appears to draw on Vedic religious ideas as much as Buddhism. Interconnectivity is a feature of the Vedic worldview which bases religious power on the ability to identify and manipulate correspondences between things in this world and things in heaven. 

Even so the chief sources of interdependence, such as the Gandhavyūha Sūtra, point to interdependence being a metaphor for śūnyatā. The idea being that all dharmas have the same important characteristics of lacking svabhāva (meaning precisely that a dharma cannot be a condition for its own existence). Thus if one can understand even one dharma, then one can understand them all. Or at least, one can understand of them all, that aspect which has soteriological value. Of course that soteriological value is often confused with an ontology, but it need not be. The image typically used for this way of seeing dharmas is Indra's Net: a net covered in jewels with the special property that each reflects all of the others. Far from pointing to some mystical dimension of reality, it is illustrating śūnyatā in metaphors and symbols rather than concepts. Despite the fact that Buddhists saw pratītyasamutpāda as a Theory of Everything, this more basic idea continued to exist alongside it. Perhaps because meditators seem to revalorise the importance of examining experience and undermine any grandiose philosophising that has been going on, from time to time. 

For most Buddhist intellectuals, for most of Buddhist history, "nature" has been seen as part of saṃsāra. And when Buddhists have imagined paradise, they have imagined it in decidedly unnatural ways: as perfectly flat, covered in precious stones, populated by beings who don't have sex and are born by apparition in gigantic lotus flowers, and so on. If Buddhists were nature lovers, there is little sign of it. It is true that some monastic rules seem to suggest that monks were proto-environmentalists, in fact the principle was that they not be a burden on the people who supported them. 

This has not stopped modern Buddhists from adopting the principles of ecology and environmentalism and claiming kinship between the two worldviews. I think this kinship is far from obvious. That said embracing environmentalism is a sane response to the damage that industrialisation and globalisation has caused and are causing in the world. When the climate of the whole planet is being nudged in a direction that is inimical to human life, any narrative that motivates people to take mitigating actions is better than none. On the other hand this can back-fire as has happened with the story of climate change. Too much of the climate change story has been built on unsound foundations, which has given wriggle room to those who wish to avoid thinking about it. And now it is probably too late to prevent catastropic change, at least James "Gaia" Lovelock thinks so.

On a cautionary note, I think the idea that this translates into "saving the planet" is hubris. The planet, life, will be fine no matter what humans do. It has survived for 3.5 billion years and suffered much worse than our manipulations (e.g. global ice-ages, comet strikes, planetary scale volcanism, mass extinctions). We tend to think of ourselves as the most advanced form of life, but in fact all forms of life presently around are equally evolved. Bacteria are the dominant form of life, with fungi a close second. And this will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Everywhere people have been, excepting space, bacteria beat us to it. From Antarctica to the hottest hot springs; from the upper atmosphere to the deepest depths of the ocean,; in the purest streams to toxic waste dumps; bacteria find a way to live and often share that ability with other species.

At the moment we have the basic metaphors and myths about nature, the environment, and our place in it wrong. What we have all seems to be based in Neoliberal ideology, or to have been developed along it and share the basic values of Neoliberalism. It's not in harmony with how nature actually is. And this means that we are not in harmony with nature, or with each other. We see ourselves all wrong. We only exist inside a series of nested and over-lapping communities. At the moment we are afflicted by parasites that are sucking our blood. If we see to the health of the communities we live in, then the parasites will most likely be dealt with quite incidentally. At least this is what nature is telling us.

In the Triratna Buddhist Order we have this image of the Order as being like the thousand-armed form of Avalokiteśvara and each one of us being like a hand, playing our part in the compassionate activity of the bodhisatva. My implement is a symbolic pen. I like to think of Gaia having a near infinite number of limbs, and every organism playing a part in a harmonious and efficient organism, gloriously surfing the entropy wave together.

~~oOo~~



Further Reading
Lovelock, James. (2000) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press.
Margulis Lynn. (1998) Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. Basic Books.



05 September 2014

The Politics of Evolution and Modernist Buddhism.

Endosymbiosis according
to Lynn Margulis.
There have been some watershed events in the history of evolution theory. The discovery of fossils. Darwin and Wallace's insights into natural selection. The discovery of the structure and function of DNA by Crick, Watson, Franklin and Wilkins. To this list I would add the discovery of endosymbiosis. Unfortunately there hasn't yet been a defining moment in the study of epigenetics, but it ought to be represented too. We're still waiting for a decisive breakthrough in biogenesis - how life got started in the first place, but it will also be a watershed when it comes.

It's Endosymbiosis I want focus on in this essay. Endo means 'internal' and symbiosis means 'living together' and the compound refers to the fact that each of our cells is in fact a community of bacterial cells living together. This idea was first floated in the early 20th Century by a Russian scientist, Konstantin Mereschkowski. His observation concerned the green parts of plants. Seen under a microscope the plant resolves into uncoloured structures which support small green pills called Chloroplasts. These are very similar to cyanobacteria or blue-green algae and he conjectured that their might be a relationship. In the 1920s another scientist named Ivan Wallin made a similar identification between mitochondria (the oxygen processing parts of our cells) and other kinds of free living bacteria.

However the watershed event for endosymbiosis was the publication, after considerable difficulty with the establishment journals, of this paper:
Sagan, Lynn. (1967) 'On the origin of mitosing cells.' Journal of Theoretical Biology. 14(3) March: 225–274, IN1–IN6. DOI: 10.1016/0022-5193(67)90079-3
This rightly famous paper is now copied online in many places. Lynn Margulis had married Carl Sagan young and subsequently reverted to her maiden name for most of her career. So we'll call her Margulis, even though she was Sagan at the time. Incidentally Margulis was a collaborator with James Lovelock and a major contributor to the Gaia Hypothesis. 

Margulis's mature theory goes like this. The first cells were bacterial. They had no nucleus, DNA in loops that could be shared with any other bacteria, reproduced by simple division, and no internal organelles with membranes. Bacteria are able to live in colonies with loosely symbiotic relationships, some are multicellular through their life cycle, but at some point one bacteria engulfed another, or one invaded the cell of another, and the result was not digestion or infection but symbiosis: a mutually beneficial relationship with one bacteria living inside another. Margulis argues that the complex cells of all plants and animals (called eukaryote) are the result of at least three symbiosis events in the past, with the photosynthesising chloroplasts of plants being a fourth. The resulting eukaryote cells are large, have a nucleus and other internally bounded organelles (particularly mitochondria) and reproduce sexually (they divide their DNA and allow it to recombine with half the DNA of another individual to produce variety). Eukaryote cells don't just form colonies, but collectively form multicellular organisms with a high degree of morphological specialisation.

The paper by Margulis led to the theory of endosymbiosis finding a firm footing and eventually to the idea being included in biology textbooks. However the establishment was and to some extent still are reluctant to follow up the implications of this discovery. NeoDarwinians treat Endosymbiosis as a one-off event 3 or 4 billion years ago with little relevant to evolution in the present.

But consider this. Every sperm is very like two kinds of organism. On one hand they are like certain type of motile bacteria with a single flagellum (a rotating 'tail') that propels them through the liquid environment. On the other hand a sperm is rather like a virus, which Margulis conceived of as a bacteria from which almost all the biological functionality had been stripped out: a virus is nuclear material with a basic mechanism to inject it into the host cell. A sperm travels to its target like a motile bacteria. When it meets an ovum it bonds with the outer surface and injects its DNA into the egg, like a virus. That DNA is transported to the nucleus to form a complete set of chromosomes and the cell is "fertilised". It begins to grow and divide almost immediately. Sperm are also unusual in that production of them requires lower temperatures than any other cell type - we males have to maintain a separate cooler environment for sperm production. So part of the complex human life-cycle is lived as a cross between a motile bacteria and a virus which prefers cooler temperatures. Each fertilisation event is an example of Endosymbiosis. If we don't have endosymbiosis at the forefront of our minds, we cannot understand the basics of reproduction.

Endosymbiosis is the most significant event in the history of evolution since life began. It ought to inform one of the fundamental metaphors for how we understand our universe, but instead we have competition, selfishness and treat the predator as totem. I hate to say this, but it all sounds a bit masculine, don't you think? We we might just have easily focussed on the combinative, symbiotic, collective aspects of life. So why don't we? 


Evolution and Empire.

Margulis speculated in interviews that the reason her idea was so difficult to get published and the establishment was so reluctant to take it seriously, was to do with Victorian attitudes amongst the mainstream (mainly male) proponents of evolutionary theory. The maxim of evolution is "survival of the fittest", coined by Herbert Spencer and adopted by Darwin in later editions of On the Origin of Species. By this Darwin apparently meant "the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life" (Darwin Correspondence Project). In this section I want to look at the historical context for this maxim.

Britain and various European powers had fought repeated wars over many centuries, but with the opening up of Asia and the Americas, trade was making Europe seriously wealthy at the expense of their colonies. The British, perhaps more so even than their European neighbours, developed a sense of superiority. The decisive battles involved in defeating Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th century left Britain in almost total control of the world's sea lanes and trade routes. This cemented a victory in the long running trade wars between expanding European Empires and accelerated the growth of wealth in the UK. Investment money poured into technological innovations that turned the industrial tinkering into the the Industrial Revolution. The great symbol of the British Empire is found in Trafalgar Square in London. There Admiral Nelson is celebrated by a very ostentatious, and very costly monument: a statue set on a towering column supported by four enormous bronze lions. Less obvious are the aisles of St Paul's Cathedral which are lined with statues of military heroes rather than saints, something that shocked me when I first arrived in this country but now makes perfect sense: church, mercantile sector, state and military are all aligned here.

Darwin, Spenser and a previous generation of thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham (father of utilitarianism) and Adam Smith (humans primary motivation is self-interest) were writing at a time when Britain was the world's only super-power and it was busily using that advantage to exploit the entire world for individual profit. Even the peasants of England were exploited. The newly rich forced the enclosure of common lands for example, in order to both become more wealthy, but also to keep pressure on peasants to stop them revolting. Britain was, and to a great extent still is, a deeply hierarchical society dominated by a few wealthy and powerful families. Everyone is expected to play the social role they were born into, though anyone can aspire to be middle class these days because that threatens no one (except some of the middle class).

Back in the 19th Century Charles Dickens chronicled this way of life and the baleful influence it had on the less fortunate. Another contemporary, Karl Marx, saw the system for what it was and wanted to completely replace it. What has changed since Dickens and Marx is the rise of the middle class: a class of people whose main function is to manage and facilitate the wealth making activities of the wealthy. They do so in exchange for lives of relative comfort and security (compared to the poor) but seldom make enough money to escape the need to work for a salary for the best part of their adult lives. Averages salaries are about 1% of the earnings of their company's CEO and a tiny fraction of the actual profits of the company. Religion is still the opium of the people, but the middle classes oversee the production of the empty calories and mindless entertainment that are the crack cocaine of the people. 

Thus for members of the landed gentry, such as Spenser and Darwin, it was only natural that they subscribed to the theory that nature favoured some members of a species above others. Some were destined to succeed and dominate the herd. It was at heart a notion that justified their position both in British society and the dominance of the British internationally. They and their whole class saw themselves as the fittest to rule. This attitude persists in Britain and is on open display in today's government. The members of government have hereditary privilege and wealth and often title as well. They see themselves as the natural leaders and arbiters of morality. In other words there is a political dimension to Darwin's ideas. We cannot understand the development of mainstream science of evolution without understanding this political dimension. 

A key NeoDarwinian figure like Richard Dawkins is very much a product of the British class system: born to a Civil Servant father who administered a colony (Kenya); educated in a private school, followed by Balliol College, Oxford University; eventually becoming a "Don" at Oxford. There's no doubt that the boy was bright, but he was a member of a privileged class and as such had opportunities no ordinary British person would have, even now. And the vision of his class is basically the Victorian one. The Selfish Gene is essentially the Victorian gentleman's values expressed as an ideological view of genetics. Dawkins repeated says that the Selfish Gene is only a metaphor, but it is a metaphor for, even an apology for, the values of the British upper-classes as much as it is a metaphor for evolution. We can see that being enacted even today in the policies of conservative governments. Dawkins basically recapitulates Adam Smith's idea that each individual striving for their own benefit is the best way to benefit society. He even argues that this is the best way to understand altruism!

Compare Adam Smith
"Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it ... He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good." An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 1776
With Richard Dawkins:
"The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. 'Special' and 'limited' are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense. " The Selfish Gene. 1976.
Coming in the late 1970s the conception of The Selfish Gene coincides with the rise of the new political and economic ideologies of the Right: the new libertarianism, that deprecates government's role in society and says it's every man for himself. Neolibertarians distrust government and believe an abstraction called "the market" can mediate and arbitrate the price of everything (including political and white-collar corruption). This is erroneously called Neoliberalism, but there is nothing liberal about it. Three years later Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister of the UK and began transforming society with this same metaphor in mind. Stripping away anything which put the breaks on the profit making activities of business people or the need for them to contribute to society beyond paying the lowest possible wages to their staff. Her successors, including the New Labour Party, have gone much further: NLP removed credit controls allowing the largest amount of private debt in recorded history to build up (topping 500% of GDP in the UK ca. 2008) so that when bust inevitably followed boom, it was arguably the worst in recorded history. The present government are slowly dismantling the welfare state by selling off provision of services to the private sector where they themselves are major investors (in any sane society this would count as corruption). Meanwhile vast amounts of taxes go unpaid, and the wealthy are helped with the process of insulating themselves from social responsibility by shoddy laws enacted by their peers in government and corrupt administrators.

Dawkins and Darwin must be seen in their political landscape. Must be seen as active participants in both shaping and justifying the ideology of the ruling classes, at least in Britain. Seeing things clearly is part of waking up.

Each year we discover more and more about the role of symbiosis in speciation, in the effective working of our gut, in evolution generally. And not just symbiosis, but cooperation more generally, and related events like hybridisation.  All of these make a mockery of the Selfish Gene metaphor because everywhere we look things only work at all when they work together. Where Dawkins saw altruism as rare, it is in fact ubiquitous. Where Dawkins saw genes only working for the benefit of similar genes, in symbiogensis and symbiosis completely unrelated genes benefit each other. Genes are in fact very generous. 

In fact there's no level of organisation in which the part can function independently from the whole. A gene requires a genome; a genome requires a population; a population requires an ecosystem. The dependency is not mere abstraction, it's an absolute. For example, the cell is a product of its genome as a whole (including epigenetic factors) and without the cell the gene can neither survive nor function. This is not to say that there is no competition or no examples of self-interested behaviour. But it is to question the pivotal role given to metaphors involving selfish individuals pursuing self-interested goals benefiting the whole, especially when generally speaking. It is to question what is a self in the first place. When what we think of as a "self" is in fact a community, what does selfish even mean?


The Values of Modernist Buddhism

The self-justificatory Victorian metaphor runs very deep in British society. And is generally quite popular at the moment, because the USA is inventing stories to justify its position in the world: the self-declared champion of freedom. The idea that the vision of nature put forward by ideological zealots, steeped in the politics of Libertarianism, is the only possible view is beyond a joke. It's a tragedy. At present it is being used to justify exploiting working people throughout the first world to pay off debts incurred by corrupt bankers and their political facilitators. The effect in the developing world is often akin to slavery. The every-man-for-himself and no-holds-barred approach was supposed to allow wealth to accumulate across the society, through "trickle down economics", but in fact it just meant that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Wealth is being funnelled up to the wealthy. This happens because given free reign, greed forces wage-earners to work longer for less money. Neolibertarians only see staff as an expense that sucks money out of the pockets of shareholders: a line item to be minimised. People don't matter to them.

More than any other area of science I know of, the science of evolution reflects politics and in particular the political values of the Right. As George Lakoff has wryly observed, the Right have not only been setting the political agenda for the last 4 or 5 decades, they have been cunningly using language to frame and control the political discourse for everyone. I fear we may be seeing an end to the liberal experiment, to the spirit of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

This critique, if you believe it, has much wider implications. The idea of creating a world that might be consistent with Buddhist values is at present losing ground. Survival of the fittest, as envisaged by the wealthy elite, is driving us backwards. A survey of Buddhist countries offers no great insights and no models for emulation (unless we fancy the brainwashed peasantry of Bhutan). While I do not agree that Modern Buddhists are necessarily complicit in and facilitating this situation (Slavoj Žižek strikes me as a fatuous pseudo-intellectual), I am not seeing the clarity of economic and political thinking from Buddhist leaders that might make a difference. Because of this deficit I see Buddhists engaged in activities, which, while in themselves are admirable enough, are entirely ineffectual and insufficient to make a significant difference to the status quo. We continue to reach 100s of people each year in countries with populations of 10s or 100s of millions. Of those 100s the vast majority are middle-aged and middle class and none at all are of the ruling classes. Indeed as Westerners have begun to take Buddhism more seriously, the Western world has taken substantial steps away from our values because legislators and businessmen are now one and the same. That was the revolution. It was not televised. The rule of the business people, for the business people, by the business people. The only Buddhists challenging this at present are those taking mindfulness into the corporate and political arenas and they seem to get nothing but flack from other Buddhists.

At present our Buddhist leaders tend to be introspective and politically naive meditation teachers. Our organisations are headed by introverts who fail to be outward looking enough to properly engage in politics let alone effective organisational communication. We have great difficulty managing the politics of our own organisations, let alone getting engaged with the world in a united way.

Modern Buddhists generally have a tendency to disengage from worldly events and distance themselves from politics. We still draw heavily on the baby-boomer counter-culture ethos that sat back and let the Neolibertarians take over. In this we are quite unlike our monastic antecedents. Buddhist monks were sometimes so wealthy and so heavily involved in politics that they virtually ran empires. Sometimes the conflict between monks and bureaucrats spilled over into open war, in which the monks usually lost out. Obviously some kind of middle-way would be preferable.

We Buddhists need to get up to speed with economic and political critiques and to get involved in public discourse. We need to understand the metaphors that underpin modern life, where they originate, how pervasive they are, and develop strategies to effectively counter them where necessary. At present all the major political parties have bought into Neolibertarian ideology to some extent and it is inimical to our values. Dropping out of the system does not change the system. It merely allows the system to change in ways beyond our influence. This is the lesson of the baby-boomer counter-culture approach.

It won't be easy. Most of us are middle-class and middle-aged already (80% of the Triratna Order are over 40 and I gather this is not unusual in Buddhist Groups). We're used to being able to do pretty much what we want in exchange for our functionary roles in the economy. We don't expect to lose our freedom of religion or our comfortable way of life. Or we're comfortable with dropped-out obscurity. We do worry about being able to sustain that comfort after we stop working. And since we live longer, our retirement lasts longer and decrepitude progresses much further before we die, meaning we have to put more effort into ensuring that comfort. We're hardly revolutionaries, though many of us like to think we are. With all due respect to my teachers, the counter-culture thing was never revolutionary because it hardly changed anything and in contrast to the rise of Neolibertarianism that happened at the same time, it was negligible. Contrast this with the aggressive engagement and success of the suffrage movement and its successors (though I sometimes blanch under the scorn of feminists, I support equal rights). There are models for changing the social landscape, and to-date we are too proud to follow any of them.

I'm not a Buddhist leader, nor do I have the ear of any Buddhist leaders. I know one or two influential people read this blog, but I'm not getting open endorsements or anything. The best I can hope for is to be an irritant. One of my intellectual mentors once asked "Of what use to me is a friend who is not a constant source of irritation?" (Richard P Hayes. Land of No Buddha, p.179). I've tended to paraphrase his conclusion as "a friend ought to be a constant source of irritation; but not a source of constant irritation." I hope to be a friend to Buddhists everywhere.

~~oOo~~

It so happens that George Lakoff  recently updated his book on political metaphors and framing political debates: Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Due in shops mid September 2014. Worth a read if this kind of thing floats your boat.